Can a drink really make skin look younger?

The Observer, 27 September 2015

For the past few weeks my breakfast has taken an unusual twist. Before I crack on with work, I unscrew a small glass vial with a gold lid and down the contents. The bottle has the air of Alice in Wonderland’s “drink me” potion, but the only thing it promises to shrink is my wrinkles.

This would-be youth elixir is called Pure Gold Collagen. It contains fragments of collagen extracted from fish, you can buy it on the high street, and it’s just one of hundreds of new products encouraging us to sip, nibble and gulp our way to healthier-looking skin.

It is estimated that the burgeoning market for these so-called nutricosmetics will be worth $7.4bn (£4.8bn) by 2020, driven by an ageing population and a growing acceptance of functional foods. “Supplements are becoming more popular as users are becoming more aware of their advantage – the nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream faster than any topical remedy,” says Nicola Kilner, group brands director of Deciem, which produces Fountain, a beauty supplement drink sold in Boots and Net-a-Porter. As of August 2013, the company says it has been selling a bottle of Fountain every 11 seconds.

And drinks are just the start. There are cereal bars and pills, powders and syrups to stir into drinks or sprinkle on food. You can even buy Nescafé and beer with added collagen. All contain active ingredients which, we are told, will keep skin looking younger, make it healthier, boost elasticity and hydration, and improve various elements of skin function.

At face value, the idea of making skin healthier from within makes sense. It’s no secret that a good diet and lots of water are key to a healthy glow. But is there really enough science – if any – to back up the seductive claims of ingestible beauty products? How do they fit into the regulatory systems set up for foods and medicines? Are they just a spoonful of pseudoscience and a dose of empty promises?

  Illustration by Ben Wiseman.   

 Illustration by Ben Wiseman.

 

To understand many of the claims made around nutricosmetics, it’s necessary to take a closer look at skin. It is made up of several layers, most notably the epidermis – the outer layer – which at the very surface consists of dead cells. Below this is the dermis, which has a blood supply and contains much of the skin’s collagen and elastin fibres, which give it structure and firmness.

The logic goes that by feeding skin from the inside out – with beauty-boosting ingredients absorbed in the gut and delivered via the blood to the dermis – there should be a bigger and longer-lasting effect on appearance than can be achieved by smothering creams and lotions on the dead outer layer. “Creams can hydrate those dead cells and make it superficially look a bit more healthy than it really is,” says Martin Godfrey, head of R&D at Minerva Research Labs, the company behind Gold Collagen. “But it’s always going to be a temporary effect because it isn’t able to get to the guts of where living cells are being produced.”

Beyond this basic principle, the claims vary according to the active ingredients involved. But two blockbuster ingredients are collagen and hyaluronic acid.

Collagen is the protein that makes up around 75% of skin, and is key to its structure and elasticity. But after the age of 20 or so, we lose around 1.5% of our collagen every year. Collagen is also broken down by stressors such as too much sun exposure. That damage should be made up by fibroblasts, the body’s own collagen factories found in all connective tissues, but as we get older these tend to become sluggish. And as the collagen vanishes, so does skin’s youthful appearance.

Collagen is already a staple of many face creams, but the jury is out on how effective these products are. Most moisturising face creams will hydrate the skin and so reduce the appearance of wrinkles, so it’s hard to know whether the effects are truly because it contains collagen. “There isn’t a great deal of data on this but the evidence for topically applied collagen-containing products having any benefit is scant,” says Christopher Griffiths, professor of dermatology at the University of Manchester.

Nutricosmetics, on the other hand, tend to contain small fragments of collagen. This hydrolysed form, says Piers Raper, CEO of skincare drink Skinade, is more easily absorbed, especially when it is already dissolved in a liquid. Once in the body – the theory goes – these collagen fragments trick our own collagen factories into becoming more active. “New collagen seems to switch them on and they produce more,” says Godfrey. And so collagen production reverts back to how it was in the days before you ever worried about wrinkles.

The idea that it is possible to kickstart collagen production is seductive, and has a kind of convincing common sense to it, but is it true? Minerva has carried out placebo-controlled, double-blind studies on hundreds of women taking its Gold Collagen drinks, using objective measures (as opposed to surveys) to assess the effects, and studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals.